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A Vagabond World

A Cheap Way To Be Rich

On a pier I met a man with a binder who enticed me to his resort with pictures of a beach, volleyball, and cliff-side bungalows. He escorted me to a small truck where I squeezed onto a small bench fit tightly into the back. Beside me was an Irishman with a week's worth of stubble on the top of his head. He had been on the road for sixteen years, working only occasionally, on fishing boats in Norway, apple orchards in New Zealand, and as an English teacher all across Asia. Most recently he studied Buddhism under a Canadian at a Kathmandu monastery.

"You learn to focus on the here and now," he said of the monastic life. "The past is gone. The future is not worth bothering about."

He never could get used to the solitude, though. It was like doing penance.

"I can't wait to get back to the beach," I said.

"You've come to the right place, mate," piped up an Englishman staying at the resort. His exaltations were impressive - the food was delicious, the environment relaxing and the staff he considered personal friends.

We maneuvered muddy roads underneath the island's lush canopy before being deposited on the outskirts of a fishing village, on a beach rimmed with coral and shaded by palms. There we waited for a boat. A cooling breeze off the emerald waters gently tugged at my shirt. At once I felt at peace. Falling away were the accumulated strains of the road from Bali to India to Bangkok - jarring buses and rolling ferries, the grab bag diplomacy and perpetual negotiation, the flea ridden mattresses in the dingy hotels secreted in muddy alleys. Destination after destination I had always pressed on. Now, I felt I could stay, stay for a long while.

No sooner had our boat arrived that we were bouncing across the white caps toward a rocky point at the edge of the forest.

"How far is it?" I called to the Englishman over the reverberations of the engine.

"Over there." He pointed to a rocky peninsula.

"Beyond the point?" yelled the Irishman.

"Just before it," he shouted back.

Both the Irishman and I strained to see the beach but could not for the rocks. The boat steered for the heart of the jagged coast.

"Where abouts is it?" I asked.

"Right there," the Englishman shouted again. The engine reeled as we lurched over choppy open water. He pointed as before.

"I don't see a beach, just the rocks," said the Irishman.

"That's it," said the Englishman.

The Irishman and I looked at one another.

There was indeed a beach - a strip of sand no more than forty feet long, tucked in a shaded inlet characterized by rough boulders. Later over a bowl of noodles the Irishman asked me what I thought of the owner's photo album.

"I'd say he picked his angles carefully."

That night I tossed and turned in my cliff-side bungalow. I was not accustomed to the crashing surf, nor the bat fluttering in the rafters above the mosquito net. The interior of my bamboo and thatch bungalow, the bat had discovered, was as good a place as any to find flying insects. And then there were the ants. They were holding a shindig under the mattress and would periodically come topside for a piece of my flesh. I was up at dawn and when I ran into the proprietor on the beach I reported my ant problem. Shortly he appeared with a can of Raid and proceeded to douse the underside of the mattress and the floorboards with insecticide. Somehow the beach life wasn't measuring up.

After breakfast I hoisted my pack onto my shoulders, bid the Irishman well, and set out on the trail circumscribing the rocky coast. In under an hour I had reached the fishing village where the truck had dropped us the afternoon before. A mile beyond I came to a collection of deserted bungalows tucked neatly in a palm forest fronting a sweeping coral beach. The only sign of habitation was a dour-faced woman dozing in a chair in the restaurant. I woke her and with hardly a word she escorted me to a sturdy bungalow of wood and thatch. Cognizant of the peacefulness, I settled in quietly. The soothing, rhythmic surf massaged the shore. A passing breeze stirred the trees. With a novel I retired to my hammock and slept away the afternoon.

I awoke to see a sandy bearded American strolling up the beach, his freckled face shaded by a drooping straw hat. For three days he had had the beach to himself, he told me. He suggested that I go into town for meals, otherwise I would only find noodles.

"I ordered vegetables and rice for lunch," he said. "She brought me fried noodles. She says she's not going to buy food if no one is staying here. I told her no one is staying here because she's not buying food."

John was an aging drop out from the 1960's who had been on the move most of his life. Rarely had he held a conventional job. Originally from Ohio, he moved to Florida, lived on a sailboat, and worked in construction. During the early 1980's he smuggled drugs in his spare time. He and a couple of buddies rented a home in Columbia from which they would mail small envelopes of cocaine to friends.

"There's nothing illegal about receiving illegal drugs in the mail," he said. "Besides, the DEA doesn't have the time to chase down two grams of coke."

With gleeful irony he noted that the US Postal Service was the largest drug smuggler in the world.

John's hobby encountered difficulties when the letters turned to packages, and then to parcels.

"A couple of grams in an anonymous envelope is one thing," he said. "A box with a couple of pounds is another. It was making me nervous. I felt like we were playing Russian Roulette."

They were, but not with the American government. One night a band of guerrillas with AK 47's knocked on their door. John figured they were angry with he and his friends for working their territory. They played it cool and invited them in.

"Across the table one of them says to us, 'I hear you been smuggling coke.' Everyone knew. You can't hide that kind of thing when you're the only gringos in town. Then he says, 'You want coke, we can give you coke.'"

Reaching into his coat the soldier pulled out a back issue of Soldier of Fortune.

"We give you the coke for free," he said, opening the magazine and turning the pages. "First you bring us one of these and one of these and one of these..." They pointed to ads for pistols, rifles, Uzi's, and whatever else struck their fancy.

"They were like kids in candy store," John said. "That's when I bailed out. My friends kept at it. Guns one way, drugs the other. Eventually they got caught."

John became lost in contemplation.

"Money's the worst drug of all," he said, finally. "People will do things for money that under other circumstances they'd never consider."

After Columbia John spent a number of years living out of a tent, alternating his time between Alaska and Hawaii. Eventually he returned to Florida where he was contracted to build throwaway homes on reef islands. After the monsoon season, developers took to the skies looking for islands created by sand pushed onto the coral reefs. They would lay down an airstrip, partition out lots, and build makeshift houses to be sold to idle rich looking for private getaways. The next monsoon season would rearrange the map and John would start over again. It was an unconventional life, I remarked. I wondered if he had ever missed the stability that went with home?

"I began running on survival instincts when they began drafting us out of high school," he said. "The government was trying to kill a whole generation for profit. The protesters and counter culture tried to change the world and when they couldn't they decided to join the club and make money. Meanwhile we get Guatemala, Iran Contra, Panama, the CIA smuggling drugs. Makes you wonder if anyone reads the papers? Every time I think of staying put in America, the hypocrisy starts eating at me."

My memory of Vietnam was that of a five-year-old boy, the youngest of seven children, wondering if his older brothers were going to be sent off to the horror depicted on the nightly news. The weekly drive to swim lessons took us through the heart of Berkeley where soldiers were posted on every corner. Lyndon Johnson's campaign ad depicting a little girl with a daisy counting down to nuclear annihilation gave me nightmares. To my child's mind, war was seen as a constant. Yet, times did change. When Vietnam dropped out of view and conflict revisited America's door, foreign entanglements became "operations." American casualties were kept to a minimum and the public went about its business.

"Most people don't have time for politics," I said. "They're too busy trying to be productive. Getting by is already too much. They just want some satisfaction."

"I wish I could believe that," John said. "Satisfaction is driven by politics." I had barely digested that when he threw me a curve. "America's already too productive. By god, look at the moon shots," he said, energy coming to his voice. "For millennium men have looked to the moon and fantasized about going there? The Americans actually went and did it!"

We had been talking for hours. The glow of sunset had faded and all that remained in the moonless dark was the lapping of the surf.

"We all can't go to the moon," he said. "America can't be the model the world aspires to - we're six percent of the world using half the resources. The world can't handle American productivity on a global scale. People should try not doing things. Don't cut down the trees. Don't drive your car. Don't go to work."

He laughed and reached into his rucksack and took out a short wave radio the size of a pack of cigarettes. He told me how strange it was to intercept the news bounced off the atmosphere by the BBC. Conflicts, mergers, summits, currency fluctuations and devaluations - they were all odd snippets out of context in a vagabond world. Out of perspective they took on a new perspective.

"If people stayed home," he said, "and enjoyed themselves more often the world would be a much better place. I'm beginning to think we're all trying to be entertained. Pick your meditation: money, work, art, religion - it's all to keep us occupied."

It was my turn to laugh. "Now I don't feel so bad for getting nothing done all day."

"I get more head trips put on me. Hey, if that's what you want to do, go for it. As long as you respect all life, any lifestyle is just as valid as the next. Life is not right or wrong, it just is."

The only asset John had ever owned was a sailboat. Without an address there was no need for rent or taxes. It was his way of not contributing to the chaos. Eventually he collected his profits, sold the boat and came to Thailand, hoping to live off the interest while he enjoyed the warm, clear waters which he described as perfect for boating and snorkeling. He would stay until the money ran out or he changed his fancy.

He lit up a joint and said, "I think it was Mark Twain who said, 'Living below your means is a cheap way to be rich'?"

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